The recent upsurge of unrest in southern Thailand has increased concerns that the country’s Malay Muslim provinces—Pattani, Yala and Narithiwat—may be emerging as a new front for cross-border terrorism in Southeast Asia. In particular, regional and western authorities fear that outside militants, including cadres with ties to Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) and the broader international jihadist movement could be establishing a logistical and operational foothold to further the objectives of international Islamists. Yet while the nature and tempo of violence in southern Thailand has certainly changed over the last 24 months, there is no firm indication that this transformation is the result of external influences.
The Nature of the Insurgency
The nature of the current conflict in southern Thailand differs in several key respects from the limited, sporadic and largely ad-hoc insurgency that was waged throughout the 1980s and 1990s. First and foremost, the intensity of violence today is of a far higher order than in the past. During 2004, 878 attacks were recorded in the region, which represents a 25 percent increase over the average annual incident rate for the 1990s. Total casualties were 841, including 325 deaths and 516 injuries. Figures in 2005 have continued to exhibit a rapidly escalating trend. Between January and September some 1,084 assaults took place, killing 367 people and wounding another 282 (Interview, Chulalongkorn University, November 2005).
Besides intensity, there are indications that the militants have developed the means to both produce and deploy larger, more powerful bombs. One improvised explosive device (IED) that was detonated in a car trunk on the Thai-Malay border in February 2005, for instance, weighed 50 kilograms. This stands in stark contrast to earlier rudimentary IEDs, most of which were in the 5 and 10 kg range and usually packaged in simple everyday items such as shopping bags, Tupperware lunch boxes and PVC tubing (Interviews, The Nation and Australian Embassy [Bangkok], November 2005).
In line with a higher tempo of violence, the mechanics of individual operations has steadily improved. This has been most apparent with cell phones, which are now routinely used to trigger improvised IEDs. These mechanisms are far more effective than the older, Chinese-made analogue clocks that extremists have traditionally relied on, not least because they allow for external detonations in clear line of sight of a specific target and at a particular time (Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2005). In addition, attacks are now routinely being integrated and executed along a full modality spectrum—often embracing coordinated bombings, arson, assassinations and random shootings—to maximize overall impact.
The audacity and range of attacks has also expanded. In January 2004, one of the most brazen robberies ever to have taken place in the south occurred when a group of roughly 100 unidentified Muslims raided a Thai army camp in Narithiwat and made off with over 300 weapons, including assault rifles, machine guns and rocket propelled grenades (Far Eastern Economic Review, January 27, 2004). Two equally bold operations followed quickly on the heels of this now infamous foray. The first occurred on March 30 and involved masked gunmen who descended on a quarry in the Muang district of Yala and successfully stole 1.6 tons of ammonium nitrate, 56 sticks of dynamite and 176 detonators (Jane’s Intelligence Review, May 2005). The second, known as the Krue Se Siege, took place on April 28 when machete-wielding militants attempted to overrun a string of police positions and military armories in Pattani. Over 100 attackers were ultimately killed in the incident, 31 of whom were shot after seeking refuge in the central Krue Se mosque.
More recently were the April 2005 simultaneous bombings of the Hat Yai International Airport, the French-owned Carrefour supermarket and the Green Palace World Hotel in Songkla. The three attacks generated widespread concern throughout the country, not least because they represented the first time that Malay extremists had struck outside the three separatist provinces and focused on venues liable to have consequences for wider Western and/or international interests (The Bangkok Post, April 4, 2005).
Finally, the nature of the current bout of instability in the south has been marked by an explicit jihadist undertone not apparent in past years. Reflective of this have been frequent attacks against drinking houses, gambling halls, karaoke bars and other establishments associated with Western decadence and secularism; the distribution of leaflets (allegedly printed in Malaysia) specifically warning locals of reprisals if they do not adopt traditional Muslim dress and observe the Friday holiday; and the increased targeting of monks and other Buddhist civilians—often through highly brutal means such as burnings and beheadings (2005 witnessed six decapitations)—in an apparent Taliban-style effort to undermine society by fostering religious-communal fear, conflict and hatred (Interviews, The Nation, November 2005).
External Influences or Local Imperatives?
Commentators have expressed concern that the altered and more acute nature of unrest in the Malay Muslim provinces could be indicative of growing external extremist penetration involving radicals with links to both JI and (through this movement) the broader global jihadist network. In particular, these officials remain worried that a process of fanatical Arabisation similar to that which has occurred in Indonesia and the outlying Moro areas of the Philippine archipelago may now be taking place in Thailand’s deep-south, possibly heralding the emergence of a new strategic theater for anti-Western terrorist attacks in Southeast Asia (Interviews, November 2005).
Compounding these fears are reports that money from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Pakistan is increasingly being channeled to fund the construction of local Muslim boarding schools (or “ponoh,” known as pondoks in Malaysia and pesenteren in Indonesia), private colleges and mosques dedicated to the articulation of hardline Wahhabist and Salafist teachings. A number of prominent clerics alleged to be connected to international Islamist elements have been tied to these institutions, including Ismail Yaralong (a.k.a Ustadz Soh, who is widely suspected of acting as spiritual inspiration for the Krue Se Siege) and Ismail Luphi (who has been directly connected to convicted Bali 2002 bombers Ali Ghufron and Amrozi) (Interview, The Nation, November 2005). A 2004 assessment by Thai military intelligence suggests there are at least 50 educational establishments scattered throughout Pattani, Yala and Narithiwat that have been decisively penetrated by Islamist forces to recruit and/or train their students for holy war (Jane’s Intelligence Review, November 2004).
To a certain extent, it is reasonable to speculate that at least some outside Islamist entity has attempted to exploit the ongoing unrest in southern Thailand for its own purposes. To be sure, gaining a logistical and operational presence in this type of opportunistic theater is a well-recognized and established practice of networked movements such as al-Qaeda and JI. That said, there is as yet no concrete evidence to suggest the region has been decisively transformed into a new beachhead for pan-regional jihadism. While it is true the scale and sophistication of violence has increased, there is nothing to link this change in tempo to outside militant forces. Indeed, in the opinion of informed local commentators, the heightened intensity of attacks reflects learning and development on the part of indigenous rebel groups, possibly combined with the infusion of an increasingly competitive criminal interplay involving gambling syndicates, drug lords and corrupt members of the security forces and political elite. Moreover, these same sources are quick to point out that unlike the situations in Mindanao and Indonesia, there is no established expanse of rebel-held territory in Pattani, Yala or Narithiwat that external extremists could use to institute a concerted regimen of international terrorist training (Interviews, November 2005).
Equally, although there is a definite religious element to many of the attacks that are currently taking place in the three Malay provinces, it is not apparent that this has altered the essential localized and nationalistic aspect of the conflict. At root, the objective is to protect the region’s unique identity and traditional way of life—both from the (perceived) unjust incursions of the Thai Buddhist state and, just as importantly, the unprecedented influx of cross border movements of trade, commerce and people. As one Bangkok-based journalist puts it: “Muslims are now standing up for Muslim rights, which together with globalization, has catalyzed the insurgency [onto a more explicit] religious plane” (Interview, Chulalongkorn University, November 2005).
Perhaps the clearest reason to believe that the southern Thai conflict has not metastasized into a broader jihadist struggle, however, is the fact that there has been no migration of violence north, much less to other parts of Southeast Asia. Indeed, there appears to have been a deliberate strategic decision on the part of rebels on the ground—including those associated with the Barisan Revolusi Nasional–Co-ordinate, an ad-hoc, loosely based alliance that has claimed responsibility for many of the attacks that have occurred over the last 24 months—to not explicitly tie the Malay cause to wider Islamic designs (Interview, The Nation, November 2005). Again, this stands in stark contrast to organizations such as the Abu Sayyaf Group and the Rajah Soliaman Revolutionary Movement, both of which claim to be fighting for Moro Muslim interests in the southern Philippines, but each of which has been directly connected to JI as well as bombings that have occurred well beyond their primary theater (such as the 2005 Valentine’s Day bombings in Manila).
As noted above, one cannot dismiss the possibility that at least some external penetration may have taken place in southern Thailand. Accurately disaggregating the extent to which this has actually taken place, however, is of vital importance—both as an issue of substance and policy. To inappropriately conflate local grievances and objectives with outside imperatives will not only serve to greatly complicate the possibility of peace agreements on the ground, it also risks creating the very conditions for the type of cross-border radicalism that governments in this part of the world so fear.